I believe in the theory of associative learning. What I mean is that when I am given information I tend to process it in the context of information that I have already digested. As a news junkie I am prone to associate news events with news reports that I’ve read in the past. When I read through “The Afghanistan Papers” that were recently uncovered by the Washington Post I thought about things like “The Pentagon Papers” which were released by the same paper in 1971.
The Pentagon Papers were part of a Defense Department study commissioned by then Sec/Defense Robert McNamara which detailed the Vietnam War’s evolution from a contained policing action under the Eisenhower administration to a full-blown mess of a war through the Kennedy and Johnson years that was completely out of control by the time Nixon was sworn in.
The Pentagon report detailed how both Democratic and Republican administrations lied to the American public about how the conflict was escalating while covering up some of the more brutal steps that were being taken in an effort to “win” it. I’m using quotation marks around the word “win” because, as the papers revealed, there was no objective definition of victory in Vietnam. In fact, almost 50 years later you can have an argument about who “lost” in Vietnam but one thing’s for certain — we damn sure didn’t win it.
And when a major in the Army justified the complete destruction of a village called Ben Tre in 1968 with the statement that “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” little did he realize that he may as well have been speaking metaphorically about the public’s trust in the government at that point. The end of the ’60s gave rise to a divided country whose anger would ultimately become the cornerstone for the impeachment of a President and a decade of social angst afterwards.
Fast forward a few decades and quick scan of the Afghanistan papers shows us making the same mistakes in an area that has come to be known as “the graveyard of empires” ever since people figured out that the world wasn’t flat.
The armies of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan met their matches in Afghanistan. The British tried without any luck to subdue the place on three occasions. In modern times the Soviet Union had to withdraw from the country and the United States, well, call it want you want but it damn sure ain’t “winning.”
Again, the Afghan documents paint a picture of a country that charged into the abyss of war without any clear idea of how to fight it and much less how to win it. Over the last two decades both Democratic and Republican administrations have concealed these facts from us. The newly released documents also detail a phenomenal amount of money being embezzled, stolen or just outright wasted while this was going on. About 5% of our current national debt — boom, gone, up in smoke.
I will note that a lot of that money went towards training the Afghan army. Why? Whatever they already have over here is sort of like the New England Patriots of warfare. They might lose a game now and again but they always have a winning season.
Why do we refuse to learn the lessons of history and fail spectacularly while doing it? I have two theories. Firstly, when we think of war we tend to think of fighting against another country. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, however, we were fighting against “isms” (communism, terrorism). Conventional warfare is waged over a geographic map but war against “isms” involves a map of the mind. Terrorism in particular is a statement made by a stateless entity. And let’s face it, we send our armed forces off to destroy things — not to lead some kind of geopolitical encounter session.
Secondly, we tend to look at a particular conflict as singular incident in time and by doing so we fail to see the event as part of a larger pattern. For example, many historians agree that World War II was a direct result of World War I. If you can agree with that then the idea of the Vietnam War being a piece of unfinished business from World War II isn’t that farfetched. Likewise, when the Middle East was partitioned up after both the first and second world wars along arbitrary lines, and without regard for the wishes of the people actually living there, you can imagine some trouble stirring up. And in both cases I will add that there were a lot of natural resources, namely oil, up for grabs.
But to a public addicted to instant news and results being represented by officials who can’t think beyond the next election cycle these bigger ideas easily get lost. So here’s to looking forward to the future publication of “The North Korea Papers.”